22 Jan 2024
by Adam Kilsby

How do we bridge the digital skills gap within national security?

Guest blog by Adam Kilsby, Principal Consultant at Zaizi #NatSec2024

I’m sure if you took a straw poll around many offices on how we might close the digital skills gap in National Security, you would hear lots of variations of “it’s very simple, just pay more money…”. 

Now I’ve spent a lot of time during my career pondering this very question, and I have a few suggestions.  By no means do I have all of the answers, but what I can say with some certainty is that there’s more to it than money.  

So, in the interest of perhaps sparking a more nuanced conversation, here are some of my thoughts.  They’re based on little more than 20 years’ worth of conversations in myriad tea rooms, in military, civil servant and industry circles… backed up with proper researchers from RSA. 


Let’s start with the elephant in the room.  Most of us working in National Security, whether public or private sector, are unlikely to retire to our own Caribbean islands any time soon.  I think most of us understood that when we got into this line of work. 

Pretty much without exception, all of the colleagues I’ve worked with in this sector are motivated by a higher calling than financial gain. 

If you have the technical abilities to make it as a DDaT specialist in national security, you probably also have the skills to make your fortune in banking, gambling, or some other industry sector that likely pays better (apologies if I’m tarring people with the same brush there).

Yes, very few of us are in the position to work for nothing. But I personally get a far bigger kick out of helping make the UK safe, secure and prosperous than I do watching my bank balance tick a bit higher each month. 

So I would argue that salaries and benefits should be competitive enough to be attractive and provide reasonable financial security so employees aren’t distracted by money worries.  In fact, if people are attracted to this sector for the money, you’re probably attracting the wrong people.  Now I appreciate I am potentially on a sticky wicket here, writing this blog from a commercial entity that is not subject to quite the same pay constraints as the Public Sector bodies that we work with.   But speaking personally (and suspecting it’s a sentiment shared more widely), I regularly forego potentially more lucrative positions that would not offer the same sense of purpose.     

A sense of purpose

So if it’s not (just) a case of throwing money at the problem. What else can we do? 

Well, we’ve discussed the higher purpose, and the sense of satisfaction that comes with making a meaningful contribution.  If you read the Government’s Integrated Review, it talks a lot about closer integration between departments being a central pillar of national security. 

The organisational and legislative structures we have in place are often a function of an analogue world.  They simply don’t work very well in a digitally interconnected one.  As someone driven to make an impact, I find nothing more soul-destroying than taking a clunky pen and paper process, and swapping it for a clunky keyboard and spreadsheet process. 

Without the ability to understand the end-to-end context (for “need to know” reasons), and to be able to optimise the entire value chain (that often spans departments and legislative instruments), we’re often just left shuffling deck chairs.  And if not that, we then swing to the opposite extreme where you have to build an entire Death Star to do anything.  Either way, it can very often feel like you’re left with Hobson’s choice, ticking boxes or being overwhelmed by enormity. Even with all of the mixed metaphors, it’s easy to see why people become disillusioned, as it isn’t a recipe for a meaningful career. 

National Security isn’t unique in this regard but does probably have an additional unique set of challenges over the more citizen-facing areas of government.  A recent report by the National Audit Office highlights the need for cross-cutting sponsorship of the associated business change, often at Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) level.  I agree that cross-cutting sponsorship is vital but PUS’ likely already have a sizeable in tray, especially those with a national security of foreign policy brief.  They’re human too.  How many realistically have the capacity to really take on the scale of this challenge?  

For now, we seem doomed by Conway’s law, forced to keep building dysfunctional solutions because we’ve built somewhat dysfunctional institutions.  The inevitable result is that our ability to offer the workforce the opportunity to feel like they make a meaningful contribution is diminished. The bright lights and enticing benefits of other sectors become more attractive. 

A sense of mastery

A big motivator for many is a sense of mastery of your craft.  Whilst the word artisan doesn’t get used often in tech contexts, the truth is that many people who are purpose-driven have an intrinsic motivator to be the best version of themselves. But being a master relies on a level of external validation; despite my best efforts, declaring myself a master of something (no matter how many blogs I write!) just doesn’t lend the same credence as it would if that title were conferred upon me by someone else.    

The siloed and secretive nature of the National Security security sector makes it hard to get that external validation. Often you can’t widely advertise what you do, and possibly you yourself have no idea of the outcomes you’re enabling. 

In a metricised world, where self-worth and contribution can be measured in numbers of content followers, git commits or forum posts, I can understand why people feel more attracted to other sectors.  Do we have the structures in place to recognise and nurture talent, irrespective of their position in the hierarchy or number of years of experience? 

Even if we can spot potential, how do we nurture it effectively when the technological landscape against which we are being measured is changing so rapidly? Jumping on the next bandwagon rather than the previous has been a challenge throughout history. It is doubly hard in this context where change happens so quickly whilst security constraints can risk dislocation from the “real world” outside. Established masters may have to be willing to suffer the humility of obsolescence a number of times during their careers.

I would therefore propose that encouraging and rewarding aptitudes such as agility and resilience will be as important as mastery of specific technical skills.  Such attributes are far harder to benchmark.     

Encouraging autonomy

I perhaps once again risk stepping into dangerous territory here, but past line managers would testify that I do have a slight anarchistic streak. I am no respecter of inherited status or privilege, and many of my colleagues are the same. That’s where the creative energy comes from that leads to transformational ideas and without it we would just perpetuate the status quo. 

But some of these characteristics can be dangerous in a national security context.  To continue to work in this sector, I have to accept that I can’t work from anywhere I want, on any device I want, whenever I want.  In my personal life, I have to be willing to compromise in matters such as travel destinations, personal relationships, certain pastimes etc.  My bucket list is far less ambitious than some of my university peers! 

To be clear, these are for very good reasons.  But the point still stands that no matter how flexible our line manager and how flat our organisational hierarchy, working in National Security imposes constraints on one’s autonomy. Not everyone is willing to make those sacrifices, especially in a marketplace that is flush with alternative options that may not be so constrained. 

Someone like Mark Zuckerberg may be an extreme example but it’s hard to imagine him impressing on an entry interview, turning up in the trademark sandals and hoody. And even if he was successful, can we realistically see someone from an “IT” background heading up a major department within a few years of university? Let’s be honest, most organisations, public or private, just wouldn’t know what to do with him.  But imagine if we’d managed to harness that drive, talent and creativity. What a force for good could Facebook (and its associated platforms) have been if used for the benefit of citizens, rather than the advertisers who bankroll them? 

In summary

Scratch the surface, and this is a big question. Each of the points I’ve raised here is worthy of far more unpacking and analysis, and the list I’ve provided is far from exhaustive. 

I personally love working in this sector.  For all of the downs, it has provided me with a career of, at times, brilliant weirdness. I have had the opportunity to see and do things that I wouldn’t get to do in any other context. The sense of purpose and achievement surpasses every other industry sector I’ve worked in. 

However, hopefully, this article has helped move the conversation a little from “just pay more.” A more rounded workforce strategy that is aware of the points raised here, and how it seeks to address them, will likely be far more effective (and potentially cost effective too).  Heading up a growing practice within Zaizi is putting all of this to the test.  It is a great privilege to bring new talent into the sector, expose them to some of the weirdness that has characterised my career, and do my bit to respond to the skills shortage.  

That being said, to tackle the original question of “addressing the digital skills gap in National Security”, the real golden bullet is a root and branch reform of National Security’s value proposition to its DDaT (and arguably wider) workforce.  But we’re now back in the realms of building Death Stars again. I can see why it’s often preferable to return to quietly shuffling deck chairs under the banner of the next relaunch, whilst complaining about the size of our pay packets.

techUK’s National Security Week 2024 #NatSec2024

The National Security team are delighted to be hosting our annual National Security Week between Monday, 22 January 2024, and Friday, 26 January 2024.

Read all the insights here.

National Security Programme

techUK's National Security programme aims to lead debate on new and emerging technologies which present opportunities to strengthen UK national security, but also expose vulnerabilities which threaten it. Through a variety of market engagement and policy activities, it assesses the capability of these technologies against various national security threats, developing thought-leadership on topics such as procurement, innovation, diversity and skills.

Learn more

National Security updates

Sign-up to get the latest updates and opportunities from our National Security programme.





Adam Kilsby

Adam Kilsby

Principal Consultant, Zaizi